Ariel Burger
9 minute read


[Talk below was at the opening call of the Interfaith Compassion Pod, on Sep 11, 2022.]

Thank you all, for having me and for holding this space and projecting compassion out broadly into the world in so many ways. I'm honored to be with you. And today we remember a wound in the world, and we bless those who are forever affected by the events of this day with healing and hope. Sometimes our hearts break. Sometimes we experience the heartbreak of the world. And when we do, a question emerges that Preeta alluded to. And the question can be asked in many different ways, with many different flavors and colors and tones, but at its core, the way that I frame it is: How do we honor memory and the pain that goes with painful events, the memory of difficult and painful and tragic events. How do we learn from memory and how do we turn it into a source of compassion, hope and blessing. Another way of asking the question is: What do we do with our heartbreak?

As Preeta mentioned, I had the blessing of studying for many years with professor Elie Wiesel, and I'm sure some of you know that Elie Wiesel survived the Holocaust. He saw the loss of his mother and little sister, and then his father in the death camps, the destruction of his hometown and the entire culture and society in which he grew up, the pre-war traditional Jewish culture, which was really wiped out. And he survived and somehow was able to transmute his experience of this radical darkness and suffering into a motivating force for so much good, for so much work in human rights and genocide prevention and peacemaking. And as a teacher and an author, he saw his task for decades, for the rest of his life, as sensitizing students and readers and audiences, and anyone who would listen to the reality of the other, the reality of other human beings, to help people shift from being spectators, to being witnesses.

A spectator is someone who sees the suffering of another and feels distant from it, and not at all implicated and not at all connected, not at all responsible. And a witness is someone who sees, experiences, learns about suffering, and feels that there must be a response. And so I remember after the events of September 11th, 2001, calling Professor Wiesel, and I asked him, how can we find hope in this? And we had a long conversation. And as I was asking my framing, my question, a thought came to me and I shared it with him to hear his response. And the thought was very simple but it was this: Look how a small group of people motivated by a dark ideology have changed reality for our world. Everything is different now. So many new doors that we would've preferred not to open have now opened, and we have new challenges and new questions. If it can happen in the direction of darkness, can it not also happen in the service of life, of peace, of surprising liberations? Can a small group of people accomplish radical change? Is that one of the many lessons of this terrible moment? And Professor Wiesel's response was terse and clear: "It surely can, but it is up to us to make it so".

In my tradition, in Judaism, we pray for peace three times a day. Peace - Shalom is a name of God. We yearn for peace, but we also must work for it. And one of the great mystics of my tradition, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who lived about 200 years ago in Ukraine, teaches that we must seek peace between people and between communities out in the world, but we also must seek peace within ourselves in our inner worlds. And to seek peace in our inner worlds means to find divine beauty in our highest and in our lowest places, in our light and in our shadow, in our strength and in our struggles.

And he says that we can do this. It is possible because underneath all the distinctions and all the judgements that we make and experience in our lives, there lies a fundamental unity, a oneness. In Jewish mystical teachings, as in the mystical teachings of many traditions, perhaps all mystical traditions, creation, the universe, our lives all move from oneness and move to oneness. And in between is multiplicity, the 10,000 things of the world. All of history takes place in this moment between two onenesses, and each of our lives moves from oneness to oneness. And in between we experience a variety of encounters and stories and lessons. But according to the mystical teachings of my tradition, the second oneness, at the end of history, is different than the first oneness at the beginning, because the second oneness has the impression, the imprint of all of the stories that have unfolded.

And so the movement of the universe and the movement of history, in this view, is from a simple oneness to multiplicity and all the struggles and all the stories and all the colors and all the tones and all the experiences that we all experienced in aggregate throughout our history and our individual lives, our collective histories. And then again, a return to oneness that is now a rich and complex oneness with many, many stories, colors, tones, songs, poems, and dances included somehow incorporated into that oneness . And through our lives, through our good deeds and our acts of kindness we reunite every single aspect of the universe that we touch with the primordial underlying oneness. And what this means to me at a very simple level is that we are all connected in oneness, our faith traditions, our stories share so many commonalities and resonances.

We are walking so close to each other up the mountain to where heaven and earth kiss. We are also connected, as Professor Wiesel taught us, through our stories and our differences, what Professor Wiesel called our otherness. This too often is a source and has been a source of conflict and estrangement in suffering, but really it can be, and it must be a source of awe and delight. So when I see another person, I can connect to the shared things, the commonalities, the deep resonances, and our shared ultimate ancestry and our shared ultimate destiny. But equally when I see another person, I can stand in curiosity and delight to learn precisely from the differences between us, and these are both paths to compassion and respect and peace. But through either path, I must learn to stand in awe and reverence in the presence of another infinitely precious human being.

I want to share a story that holds some clues as to how we might grow in this. And this is a story that, to me, is a very profoundly mystical and existential tale, a spiritual tale, but it's not an ancient story. It's not from the mystical masters. It's a story that took place not too long ago. And I heard it from my son. My son was a few years ago on a study abroad program in Israel, which included a trip to Poland. And it was a group of American teenagers who were visiting the old centers of Jewish life in Warsaw and Krakow and elsewhere, cities now populated by other communities, some Jews, as well as the ghosts of the many who were taken away during the Holocaust. And these teenagers were traveling to those places to learn about their own history as American Jews, their ancestry.

And they were also traveling to the camps, the names of which, when spoken, opened black holes in the world. And they arrived and they traveled and explored and learned. And one day in the middle of all of this, my son's best friend on this program mysteriously left for a day with one of the counselors. He disappeared, and he came back late at night and he wouldn't tell anyone where he had been, but eventually he told my son because they were good friends, and this is what he said. My son's friend told the following.

He said, you know, my great grandparents were married three weeks before the deportation to a concentration camp. And in the camp, my great-grandfather would go every day at twilight to the fence that divided the men's from the women's camp. And he would meet my great-grandmother there when he could. And he would slip her an extra potato or a piece of bread through the fence whenever he could, and this went on for some weeks. But then, continued my son's friend, my great-grandmother was transferred from the camp itself to the outskirts of the camp, where there was a rabbit farm. The Nazis made collars for their uniforms from the rabbits. And this rabbit farm was managed by a 19 year old Polish man named Vladic Misiuna, who realized at a certain point that the rabbits were getting better and more food than the Jewish slave laborers. And so he snuck food in for them and was caught by the Germans and was beaten, but he did it again and again.

Then something happened, my son's friend continued, my great grandmother cut her arm on a fence. It wasn't a serious cut, but it became infected. And this also wasn't serious if you had antibiotics, but of course, for a Jew in that time and place, getting medicine was impossible. And so the infection spread and my great-grandmother was clearly going to die. What did the 19 year old manager of the rabbit farm do when he saw this? He cut his own arm, and he placed his wound on her wound in order to get the same infection. And he did, he became infected with the same infection that she had, and he allowed it to grow and develop until it became somewhat serious, and his arm was swollen and red. And he went to the Nazis and he said, I need medicine. I'm a manager, I'm a good manager. And if I die, you're going to lose a lot of the productivity of this rabbit farm. And so they gave him antibiotics and he shared them with my great-grandmother and he saved her life. And so my son's friend continued. Where was I the other day when I left the program? I went to see Vladic Misiuna. He's now an old man. He's still alive. And he lives outside of Warsaw. I went to see him to say, thank you for my life. Thank you for my life.

What does it mean to share someone else's wound? What does it mean to share someone else's sickness or infection? What does it take to become a person who would do such a thing in the face of tremendous pressure to hate and dehumanize the other? If we knew the answer to this question, if we knew how to activate the moral centers of compassion and courage of human beings, wouldn't our world look different. What if we entered one another's consciousness to the point that we became vulnerable and sensitized to the other's wounds? What if each of us and each organized group of humans, every community, truly and deeply felt that what injures you injures me as well? And what if we knew that our own cure, our own healing, depended on the healing of others? Is it possible that we can learn to share the wound of another? Is it possible for us to remember that we are all, without exception, family? Is it possible that we can open our hearts to one another and, in so doing, become the blessings to each other and to all of creation that we are meant to be.

As Professor Wiesel said to me in that conversation many years ago, the answer is up to each of us. It is up to us individually. It's up to us together as a growing beautiful community of people who are yearning for healing, and yearning, allowing our longing and desire for peace and healing and connection to grow, is key.

Yearning is a blessing, even though it isn't always comfortable and we are often taught to avoid it, we must deepen our yearning and give it voice. And as Professor Wiesel taught us, we must cultivate our joy in order to support the sustained commitment to making the world a place of compassion and holy love.

We are not alone in this. We have the help of our ancestors, of our teachers, of our friends, of our children who are cheering us on from the future. We have one another, we have the infinite support and love of the divine. May it be so.

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Rabbi Ariel Burger is the founding director and senior scholar of The Witness Institute, a new project to empower emerging leaders, inspired by the life and legacy of Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, to become morally empowered people who will influence their communities. Rabbi Burger is an author, artist, and teacher whose work integrates spirituality, the arts, and strategies for social change.